For All The Unknown Indigenous Saints

A quick survey of the Anglican Church calendar in For All the Saints (revised) reveals that of the 136 non-biblical commemorations listed, 18 of them are specifically Canadian. Of these, four acknowledge Indigenous contributions to the Anglican Church of Canada: Henry Budd (Cree), Mollie Brant (Mohawk), Robert McDonald (Anishinaabe/Metis), and Simon Gibbons (Inuit). Without prejudice, I also note that five of the 18 commemorations are people associated with St John’s College of which two are Indigenous.

The formation of the Church Missionary Society in 1799 led to an increased interest in bringing the Gospel to Indigenous peoples around the world. The CMS was very strategic in its operations and through its relations with the Clapham Sect sought to place its sympathizers on the HBC governing board. Until this time the HBC had resisted missions in the Rupert’s Land territories for fear that the missions would change the trapping way of life of the First Nations (they were right). With the emergence of the Red River Settlement, and the Selkirk settlement, the CMS sympathizers on the Board were able to convince the Honourable Company to send out a missionary in 1820, John West. All along it was a bit of a dodge because they knew very well that most of the English-speaking employees of the Company were Scots Presbyterians (the French-speaking and Metis who were just joining the Company from the merger with the NorthWest Company, were Roman Catholic). This is an old colonial trick to only provide clergy from the official state religion and impose it on the dissidents who had moved to the colonies to avoid the religious repression at home. John West’s mission was pushed towards Indigenous missions in part because of the recalcitrance of the Presbyterians.

By 1860, the CMS had 26 Indigenous people working in the Western missions, of whom only three were ordained ministers. The remaining 23 were catechists and school teachers. We have very little information about these people, who they were, where they were trained, where they worked and yet it is clear to me that they are the people who are actually in the front lines doing the real work of preaching the Gospel. Since they had to support themselves, they lived much closer to the lifestyles of the various communities where they worked and spoke the local languages. They were key in the translation of many of the Scriptural and liturgical texts and yet their influence has been erased by history.

Our calendar upholds Henry Budd and Archdeacon Robert McDonald as pioneers but there are other Indigenous clergy who broke ground in Rupert’s Land: James Settee, Charles Pratt, David Jones, Thomas Vincent, and John Mackay. Keep in mind that missions with Indigenous peoples in the West did not reach outside of the Red River Settlement until 1839. Although many of these men trained early in the 19th century, they could not be ordained until after the first Bishop of Rupert’s Land arrived in 1849. We must keep in mind that all of these clergy faced deeply entrenched colonialism and racism in the course of their work. They were paid half of what the non-indigenous clergy were paid; there were battles in the Red River Settlement over whether Indigenous teachers could teach the children of the HBC elite; they were never recognized for their ground-breaking work while the non-Indigenous missionaries swanned in afterward and received the heroes’ glory.

From my knowledge of mission fields elsewhere in Canada, especially the Arctic, the patterns we can see in the Rupert’s Land story are not unique. Early in the mission process some Indigenous person grabbed on to the Gospel and literally ran with it. We do not know why the particular people that we can trace took hold of the Gospel, and to be honest we do not know exactly what they grasped. But they ran with it, all the way home to their kin and people to whom they told the Gospel story. Rarely were these people ordained, although some later went on to be ordained, and even more rarely were they commissioned or authorized by the European missionaries. Before the arrival of other Indigenous catechists and school-teachers, a seed had been planted which these more authorized and mildly more educated folks could nourish into what became recognizable mission stations. Only once all this had happened did the heroic white missionary arrive to “convert the natives.” The early part of the story is largely hidden from historians who begin with the diaries of the missionaries.

Even today, a short conversation with Archbishop Mark MacDonald will reveal that Indigenous Anglican communities across Canada continued to be served by a small cadre of (unpaid) clergy and large numbers of catechists and lay readers. It is time that, as a Church, we recognize those Indigenous workers in the Gospel over the past 200 years. Let us call for a commemoration day to be inserted in the Anglican Church Canada for All the Unknown Indigenous Saints.

Christopher Trott is the Warden of St. John’s College.

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